Nearly everything we do is rhetoric. And like it or not, no matter who you are, you’re doing rhetoric and you don’t even realize it. Or maybe you do, in which case this post will probably just be a lite (as in “diet-lite”) refresher. In any case, you’re probably wondering why that title is misspelled. I’ll get to that.
But first, what is rhetoric? Simply put, rhetoric is the art of argument and persuasion. While rhetoric was studied as far back as early Mesopotamia, it was really the Greeks who laid the foundation for our modern day understanding and study of rhetoric, particularly Aristotle. Rhetoric was studies for use in public debates, which may as well have been the cultural sport of the Ancient Greeks, next to thinking and philosophizing. At its most basic level, rhetoric is made up of three main rhetorical styles, or appeals: logos, ethos, and pathos. I’ll be focusing on those for this article.
Logos is Greek for “logic”, and consists of appealing through the use of rational and logical proofs. This can include statistics, appeals to authority, syllogisms, historical fact, etc.. Logos clicks into that part of our minds that craves certainty and authenticity. Case in point: would you cite Wikipedia or Homer for your essay on The Odyssey? Then again, which Homer am I referring to? I’ll leave that to you. Logos is particularly useful in building proof for your argument, and is more or less saying “this is what I believe, as well as all these other people”. So, for instance, I can tell you that at least 60% of rhetoricians agree that logos is the most effective rhetorical appeal. On the flip side, logos can also be used to dismantle an opponent’s argument by saying “this is why I think you are wrong, as do all these other people”. So if you tell me that Superman 64 is the greatest game of all time, I can point to 15 years of mockery and bad reviews that say otherwise. I’ll also call you an idiot. Because at that point, it’s logical.
Next up is ethos, and is Greek for “ethics”. This isn’t the “ethics” you hear about in philosophical debates, but is more akin to “character” and is an appeal for credibility. Ethos is probably the most difficult appeal, because you are essentially convincing the audience to trust you. And you can trust me on this, I have a degree in Professional Writing and studied rhetoric in two of my school years. However, ethos is also dangerous because it can easily be shattered. That statistic I mentioned earlier, about 60% of rhetoricians? I made it up. I lied. Sorry. But I did so to show you just how quickly ethos can be damaged. Now, no matter how often I cite my degree or credibility, it’s going to take a lot to erase that lie out of your mind. If you want a real-world example of just how sharp the double-edged sword of ethos can be, look at these two contrasting examples. On one hand, you have Rob Ford, whose ethos is damaged every time he opens his mouth and is still mayor of Toronto. On the other hand, dislike him or hate him, Bieber became the first recording artist to grant over 200 visits to Make-A-Wish Foundation children, and raised over $1.1 million for Typhoon Haiyan relief.* Not bad for a young, self-destructive twit.
All right, you know what—look, I feel really bad about making up that stat. It’s late, I’ve had a long day, and I’ve been stressing over what to write so I decided to bang out something on rhetoric because I love rhetoric. Also, I had to acknowledge that Justin Bieber did something meaningful in the world, so I’m understandably perturbed. I’m sorry, but we all make mistakes. Now hold on: see that? I just hit you with pathos—which literally means “pathetic”. Something which stirs the heart and brings the feels is categorized as a pathetic, or emotional, appeal. So when Han Solo is being lowered into the carbonite chamber and Leah says “I love you” and he says “I know,” he’s actually being quite pathetic. But, you know, in a rhetorical way. Pathos is often used by orators to stir their audience’s emotions, and is often done through storytelling, like anecdotes, or through rhetorical schemes like repetition, metaphor, and maxims. When used effectively, it can be inspiring. When used excessively, it can just be… painful.
Your Own Rhetoric
So, now that you know what rhetoric is, you’re probably wondering what I mean by my opening statement. How can nearly everything we do be considered rhetoric? Well, for one thing, you’re probably also wondering why the title is misspelled. Now think about everything I’ve been discussing: here I am talking about appeals and ethos and writing—“but look at this guy!” you may think. “He can’t even spell “motion” correct! And “rhetoric” only has one ‘h’!” But I will defend my credibility: it is misspelled in such an obvious way that you probably guessed it was intentional. That’s why editors freak out over typos, though: they’re trying to salvage your ethical appeal as a writer. So when it comes to writing, the words you choose—and how you spell them—is also a form of rhetoric, because you are trying to persuade your audience that you not only know what you are talking about, but also that you have the right to say it. You may have remembered a previous post of mine where I wrote “We Are Our Words”, and really, that statement is pure rhetoric. Because what it’s saying is that what you write is a reflection of who you are.
But rhetoric doesn’t just end with writing. You can infuse rhetoric into practically any interaction you have in the world. The Greeks understood rhetoric to be a part of daily life, and not just in their political debates. As for us today, let’s start with the most obvious one: appearance. Yes, the way you dress and look can be rhetoric too. Don’t believe me? Look at the old Mac and PC guys.
Ask yourself, just by their appearance, which one would you be more likely to hang out with on a Saturday evening? Or, which one would you want to hang out with on a Saturday evening? Oh, be honest, even I’d hang out with the Mac guy and I don’t even like Apple. Next ask yourself, if you were the boss of a major corporation, which one would you be more likely to hire? Now do you see what I mean? Depending on our audience, how we look and how we dress are just as important as what we say and how we say it. I mean, I’m writing this post in my pajamas, but if I were up on stage, delivering this to an auditorium of students, I’d be rocking my three piece suit and 8-bit tie. But really, our hair, our dress, our accessories, all that and more are communicating who we are to the world. So before you show up to your next job interview in your Meme shirt and pretentious fedora, check your own rhetoric, and dress to impress. Then, when you’re hanging out with your friends, dress to express. Be aware of the difference, and when to use both.
So I’ve just skimmed over the absolute basics of rhetoric, and I hope that is enough to get you to think about how you rhetoric in your own life. How do you present your arguments, your ideas, yourself to the world? And not only that, how can you do it better? Think of your logos, ethos, and pathos. Think what situations they are best used in. Think of rhetoric as an active part of your life.
Think of rhhetoric in moshun.I’ve even hidden some rhetorical appeals and rhetorical fallacies in this article. Even if you don’t know what they’re called, odds are you’ll notice some things that may just feel like they were intentional (i.e. intentional misspelling). If you find them, post in the comments!
*As a side note, the writer of this blog neither endorses nor supports the actions, songs or cultural relevance of Justin Bieber, but recognizes his philanthropic contributions and, unfortunately, that he is still Canadian.